Eighteen years ago, on April 24, 2004, I heard my name announced as the 32nd selection of the NFL draft. A childhood dream realized; the shouts and tears of joy flowed from family and friends assembled in anticipation and eventual celebration. During my 16-year career, my family and I made six different moves while playing for four clubs, two of them twice.
Professional football is exhilarating, as you would imagine. It is also mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting for the athlete and the entire family. There are many exit doors in pro football, and the week to week and season to season grind can be overwhelming. Though victory was often interlaced with discomfort and defeat, I'm grateful to have played the game I loved for so long. As I reflect on that season of life, five lessons still resonate with me, guiding what has sometimes been a challenging transition to life after the game.
1. The Journey is meant to be Enjoyed, not simply Endured.
I'll never forget that rush of emotions right before starting a new season. The excitement of possibilities unknown would soon reveal themselves in the obstacles I'd ultimately face. Looking back on my early years in New England, I didn't take things in and enjoy myself as much as I could have. There was so much pressure to succeed that I often felt anxious about the challenges ahead. I tethered my identity, my worth, to success on the field. In retrospect, I should've taken more time to sit back and enjoy all the good things around me—especially my growing family.
If New England taught me anything, it's that my identity should be about more than being an athlete. I was a Christian, a husband, and a father. Working with excellence is essential, but true identity cannot be found in an occupation or a paycheck. Overemphasis on those things will inevitably rob us of our joy as we miss the present with eyes and hearts focused on future worries that rarely materialize as we feared.
2. Community can be Tough to Build, but it is Worth the Effort.
In Cleveland, I learned the importance of working with a team and living in a community. I don't think we were meant to live life alone. Being involved at my church and with my family is vital. Life is better when we find a community that can support us in our walk through the ups and downs. There is power in relationships. God sovereignly places us in places that will prepare us for periods of growth—especially during difficult times. Our win-loss record was less than stellar during those years, but the men on that team challenged me to grow spiritually in ways I will never forget.
Cleveland fans were some of the best fans you could ever want. And, looking back, some of the friendships forged on that team are still blessing us today.
3. Serving God is Greater Than the Applause of Men.
Athletes learn the value of being noticed very early in their careers. When we make big plays, fans, coaches, media, teammates, and even family members see. But it was a period when I wasn't on the first team for the Saints on the field that God prepared me to become a better leader off of the field. I learned to speak up on various cultural issues. As it turned out, the year I didn't feel like I was being influential was also the year I had the tremendous honor of being named team captain.
With the Saints, I learned that God can still use you whether you're a big shot or you feel like a nobody. He decides when to elevate one voice and silence another. I learned to slow down and better appreciate others' stories. It was challenging to play backup and do the grunt work during part of my time in New Orleans. But as I look back, being able to baptize two teammates in the training room rehabilitation pool was a highlight of my life. This lesson applies to our home lives, where the roar of the crowd gives way to the cry of a toddler. The work between those four walls may never earn applause, but it is of greater value than any assignment the world may offer.
4. Perseverance and Pain are Precursors to Purpose.
Fans rarely see what's happening off the field. In our time with the Ravens, we experienced a lot of setbacks. In Baltimore, they say to "Play like a Raven." It means playing tough, being resilient, and having character. I learned that I was not invincible during my time with the Ravens. I tore my Achilles and ruptured a disc in my back. We lost two children through miscarriage and felt entirely alone. But, no matter how things unfold in life, there can be fruit.
While I was injured, my busy schedule changed, and I could go to church with my family. As I look back, my time with the purple and black—both on and off the field—was fruitful. My love for social justice matured in Baltimore as I attended conferences in the DC area, met with elected officials and law enforcement, and spoke at events like the March for Life. We led a couples' Bible study in our home that has produced dividends in lives and marriages to this day. Life is not easy. Calamity and disaster beset us unexpectedly. Persevering through hardship is never easy, but sometimes ministry and mission are born in the valley of our misery and despair. Keep pressing on.
5. Faithfulness, not Perfection, is what our Families Deserve.
After leaving Baltimore, we headed back to New Orleans for one more year with the Who Dat Nation before returning to where it all started with the Patriots. By this time, we were parenting new twins, never sleeping, and dealing with more injuries on the field and emotional fatigue at home. In retrospect, I question my decision to put my wife and family through that last cross-country move merely weeks before training camp began. Through the disappointment of physical injuries, being released, and being resigned, I learned the most important thing is to be faithful—to show the people around me, at work and home, that I'll show up no matter what. Faithfulness is a steadfast commitment that embraces intentionality, admits wrongdoing, and courageously lays down its ambitions for the betterment of others. It is the foundation of trust. On several occasions, when asked, my advice to a young father and husband was simply this, "You have one job for your family—be faithful. No matter what. You'll never regret it."
It is a common saying that football teaches lessons that will be applied throughout the entirety of life. Time, place, and direction have changed, but in my years since retirement, these experiences and others continue to echo, undergirding what has already been a new chapter of adventure and mystery. I believe the best is yet to come.